The fig cake saved the day. My wife, Liz, and I were somewhere among the vineyards of the Pope Valley, on the back side of Napa Valley's Vaca Range, 25 miles into the first long bike ride we had ever done, and shortly after I'd lost my only water bottle in the blazing heat. I heard Liz, pedaling behind me, yell for me to stop. I stepped off my bike, walked it into the shade of an oak tree and waited. "I'm totally fading," Liz said, pulling up. Then she added, to my immense pleasure, "I so need something to eat."
I've been trying to find things Liz likes to eat for years, mostly in Napa Valley. Her parents have a condo there, and we go up a lot on summer weekends, but I don't much like lounging around the country-club pool, and Liz doesn't much like my preferred Napa pastimes, hitting great wineries and restaurants. Recently, we took up cycling together, the first sport we've tried as a couple. And I happened across something I thought she'd enjoy: Velo Vino, a new tasting room, espresso bar and bicycle-gear shop in St. Helena, California, owned by Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, the founders of Clif and Luna Bar.
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As longtime cyclists, organic farmers and winemakers, Erickson and Crawford conceived Velo Vino as an outlet for all their passions. Customers can rent top-drawer road bikes, load up on espresso and the latest Clif Bar flavors, get expert advice on biking Napa's world-class cycling roads and even taste Clif Family wines while sampling different flavors of Gary & Kit's Gourmet Mountain Mix, new trail-mix snacks that Erickson and Crawford have created. Liz agreed the place sounded fun, so on our most recent trip we decided to check it out.
First we stopped at Oxbow Market in the town of Napa for picnic supplies—bread, house-made salumi, hard Spanish goat cheeses and fig cake. Once we got to St. Helena, Velo Vino turned out to be a modest little stucco bungalow with gleaming wood floors, tasteful cycling clothes and accessories and old black-and-white photos of French bike races. Ordering a couple of cappuccinos (caffeine is Liz's athletic-performance enhancer of choice), we told manager Linzi Gay that we were beginner-level cyclists with intermediate-level cyclist ambitions, and maybe expert-level hubris.
Like a seasoned marriage counselor, Linzi turned to Liz and asked, "Is that your impression of the situation, too?"
Napa Wineries by Bike: Ladera
There were a couple of wineries that I specifically thought Liz would enjoy visiting—Ladera, a small Howell Mountain estate making terrific (and underpriced, given the quality) bottlings of my favorite Napa wine, mountain Cabernet; and Failla, which, though it's located in Napa Valley, is a first-rate producer of my favorite non-Napa wine, Pinot Noir, made with grapes trucked over from the far Sonoma Coast. I told Linzi what I had in mind, and she was perfectly happy to chart us a hilly, 35-mile course between the two.
My first crisis of faith came early (really, my second: The first crisis of faith was when I'd pulled on tight cycling clothes, a distinct mood-depressant for a 43-year old desk-jockey who'd like to believe he's Lance Armstong). We were pedaling up the steep curves of Old Howell Mountain Road, a winding one-laner that passes through oaks and hillside vineyards. Essentially, Liz's superior strength-to-weight ratio, plus her ridiculous competitive streak (she'd say I've got one, too), left me panting in the dust. She zipped around turn after turn, disappearing uphill in the distance—until we hit a washed out part of the road.
Liz may have great lungs, but she has horrible balance. She tried cycling around the metal barrier put up to keep cars off the eroded section, then crashed to the asphalt. Like a true gentleman, I helped her to her feet, judged the injuries to be minor and seized my chance to speed ahead. I grabbed a comfortable lead in the final stretch toward Ladera and glided into its driveway 50 feet ahead of her. You know the old saw about nice husbands: They never finish first.
My wife loves a great glass of wine, but she had never wanted anything to do with an actual winery until that moment when we walked our bikes into the cool, quiet shade of Ladera's old stone building, built in 1886. If hunger makes everything taste good, then sweating gallons on a country road has the same effect on wine; and if that wine happens to be excellent, then a little thirst can make it taste downright life-changing. Ladera's 2006 Howell Mountain Cabernet, with its velvety, fine-grained tannins, bright acidity and succulent fruit, made us decide right then that either winemaker Karen Culler was a genius or that we were very thirsty people indeed. Or both.
Napa Wineries by Bike: Failla
After we left Ladera, we passed through the quaint Seventh Day Adventist town of Angwin, hidden in the forest. It felt like proof again that from a cyclist's standpoint, Napa's wine country borders on paradise. There are hundreds of miles of country roads here, with mild weather and few stop signs. If you want wineries, the Silverado Trail runs for 25 miles up the east side of the valley, with broad bike lanes running clear from Napa to Calistoga. Along the way, mid-valley towns like Yountville and St. Helena offer plenty of food and wine intrigue, as well. Start cranking up one of the many mountain lanes, on the other hand—westward, say up Mount Veeder in the Mayacamas Range—and hard climbs are rewarded with great views, peaceful seclusion and more winery stops.
Of course, once you go up a mountain, you do have to go back down. Not long after rolling through Angwin, Liz and I found ourselves rocketing down Ink Grade Road, slamming over potholes and screeching around hairpin turns. Liz clutched her brakes so tightly she opened a blister on each hand. The payoff turned out to be the little town of Pope Valley, a country crossroads from a Norman Rockwell fantasy with weather-beaten old barns, antique gas pumps, giant oak trees outside a sleepy garage and a general store offering cold soda pop and a few rattly chairs under a generous awning.
When Chiles Pope Valley Road started uphill again, we began to worry that we'd chosen too long a route. That was when we had our fig cake epiphany. Never, I suspect, has a fig cake been better understood for what it truly is: the gourmand's ultimate energy bar. We devoured the whole thing within minutes, sending sugar rushing to our brains and our aching, tired legs, and soon after that the road turned downhill. We zipped along faster and faster, hardly pedaling, mile after mile, swooping through forests and vineyards and alongside a creek, reaching the Napa Valley floor just in time for our appointment in the cozy, wood-paneled living room at Failla Winery.
Failla is admittedly a lark, as Napa wineries go: Owner-winemaker Ehren Jordan doesn't work with Napa grapes. But that was my point in bringing Liz there: I wanted her to see that a single bike ride could show us all the fascinating contrasts in California's finest wines. Ladera's big, bold juice came from the sun-splashed Cabernet vineyards we'd ridden past on our bikes. Failla, on the other hand, sources all of its fruit from the far cooler, wetter, more windblown slopes of Sonoma's furthest vineyards, right above the Pacific Ocean. All the Failla wines drank well, but two stood out—the 2009 Sonoma Stage Pinot Noir, for its evocative smoke-and-herb qualities, and the ultra-smooth 2008 Occidental Ridge Pinot Noir, which put me in a mind for dinner. A duck breast, I thought distractedly, or rabbit sugo.
But before dinner we had to pick up our car, which meant a final visit to Velo Vino, five hours after we'd left. Popping inside to thank Linzi Gay, we couldn't resist buying a package of smoked-paprika-almond Mountain Mix to try along with the winery's 2007 Gary's ImProv Zinfandel. As it happened, the nuts really did pick up the exotic spice notes in the wine—plus the sheer lack of pretension made it Liz's favorite tasting of the day, by far.
We were both dehydrated, sunstruck and utterly spent, but we still needed dinner. First, though, we succumbed to the allure of La Forêt Chocolates, a new "chocolate atelier" by Wendy Sherwood, former chef de partie at The French Laundry. La Forêt has a mail-order "allocation program" so successful it's closed—meaning there's a waiting list to get on it—but the retail storefront offers walk-ins all manner of visually stunning chocolates.
After that, we headed to Oenotri, in Napa's downtown. My intention was to let Liz believe we'd just stumbled into a random pizza-and-pasta joint, looking for a bite. But one of Oenotri's chef-owners, Curtis Di Fede, a Napa native, cut his teeth under one of my all-time favorite chefs, Paul Bertolli, at Oakland's legendary Oliveto. Liz raised an eyebrow at me as we tasted their sensational house-made salumi, followed by a warm salad of spring onions, farm egg and red mullet bottarga, and a wood-fired Neapolitan pizza with wild nettles, aglio rosso (red garlic) and pecorino cheese.
Needless to say, sleep came easily that night. But right before I drifted off, I saw Liz at our laptop scanning a Google-maps page on Napa. "Hey, sweetie," she said, thoughtfully. "What do you know about the Oakville Grade, heading up Mount Veeder?"
Daniel Duane was nominated for a James Beard award for his F&W essay, "How to Become an Intuitive Cook." His memoir, How to Cook Like a Man, is due out in spring 2012.
Napa Wineries by Bike: The Ultimate Self-Guided Tour
At Velo Vino, the new Clif Family Winery tasting room and cycling shop owned by Clif Bar founders Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, visitors can sample epicurean trail mixes before a bike trip up Howell Mountain. 709 Main St., St. Helena, CA; 707-968-0625 or velovinonapavalley.com.
Biking in Peace
Napa Valley offers biking-and-tasting destinations that bypass busy Highway 29. Ladera, on Howell Mountain, pours gorgeous Cabernets; Failla, on the Silverado Trail, is known for its subtle Pinot Noirs (faillawines.com).
At the Finish Line
Any Napa tasting tour should include Wendy Sherwood's new La Forêt Chocolates. Sherwood (left), formerly of The French Laundry, makes delectable truffles filled with Sicilian pistachio marzipan, say, or black-and-white-sesame croquant.
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